Jonathan Miller: a master of all trades

Most people would consider it a good life’s work to have done any one of being a medical doctor, a member of a key British comedy troupe, fronting a landmark TV documentary series, working as a successful theatre director or staging productions that remained in the repertoire of opera houses for decades.

Astonishingly, Sir Jonathan Miller, who has died aged 85, achieved all of these career highs, either successively or in parallel. Miller’s standing and employability sometimes suffered in a British culture that prefers someone to wear one label prominently, a resentment of generalists captured in the admonitory phrase “jack of all trades, master of none”. But if anyone could claim to be a master of all trades, it was Miller. It was entirely typical that, in his final years, when stage directing commissions dried up, he tried his hand at art and sculpture.

Miller’s impact on his times was maximised not just by his multi-skilling, but also by dint of a public recognisability rare for an intellectual who did most of his theatre work behind the scenes.

This resulted from his involvement in the 1960s Oxbridge varsity comedy show Beyond the Fringe, in which he co-starred with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and which became a hit in London and New York, and more widely through TV appearances. Whereas Cook and Moore continued in comedy of various kinds, Bennett and Miller rapidly diversified into playwriting and directing respectively – but remained sufficiently famous and TV-visible faces to be targets for cartoonists and satirists.

In Miller’s case, spoofing was helped by his distinctive appearance, not unlike that of his comedic peer John Cleese, with long, thin limbs, busily gesticulating hands, and a voice in which a kind of verbal italic emphasis coincided with furrows of the face.

Fear of frivolity … Miller with Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook in Beyond the Fringe, 1964. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Miller’s rapid decampment from the comedy circuit reflected an inherent fear of frivolity, exacerbated by a lifelong unease at having abandoned the profession of medicine, into which he had followed his father, Emmanuel, a paediatric psychiatrist. Twice in his life, Miller abandoned the arts to return to medical research; his special interest was the brain, fittingly for someone who possessed such a notably impressive example of the organ. However, to his regret, Miller concluded, during his second sabbatical in medicine, that he had fallen too far behind to catch up.

But though he left medicine, the subject never quit his work. Miller’s 13-part TV documentary series The Body in Question (BBC, 1978-79) might have been seen by Sigmund Freud (who fascinated Miller) as a compromise between the profession he had abandoned and the entertainment industry into which he had fallen. In common with all his best work in various fields, it was intellectually curious and unsparing of sensitivities, attracting controversy for TV’s first detailed examination of a dead body.

And, although the NHS got little return for its investment in Miller, his medical training paid significant dividends for the Arts Council, as his theatre productions were marked by a rare physical and mental specificity in the behaviour of the characters.

What is colloquially known as Ophelia’s “mad scene” in Hamlet became, in Miller’s 1982 London production, a clinically precise depiction of a young woman suffering severe mental illness with suicidal ideation. In his 2007 Sheffield Crucible production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, there was a striking moment when Joanna Lumley, as a woman who had just received catastrophic news, fiddled compulsively with the hem of her dress. This resulted from Miller mentioning, during the rehearsals, the phenomenon of instinctive displacement tics in those who have received bad news.

Miller never managed the career in British theatre for which he had hoped, largely owing to an irascibility and frankness towards those with whom he disagreed. He admired and was championed by Laurence Olivier, the founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Great Britain, where he drew out one of his boss’s career-defining performances, as Shylock in a 1974 The Merchant of Venice, in which Miller’s demands for psychological accuracy perfectly matched Olivier’s talent for precise physical disguise. The shifting of the action to late 19th-century Venice was an early example of the updating tactic that the director would later apply in opera.

However, when Olivier was replaced by Sir Peter Hall for the National’s move to the South Bank, Miller soon clashed with a man whose personality he found too showy and direction insufficiently brainy. After backing a failed revolt against Hall, led by the NT’s associate director Michael Blakemore, Miller lost a platform at the National and never found a regular alternative home in English stage.

directing The Taming of the Shrew in 1980.

Directing John Cleese in the BBC TV production of The Taming of the Shrew in 1980. Photograph: AP

The BBC, though, recognising a rare example of someone who understood both classic drama and television, hired Miller to successfully save the BBC Television Shakespeare (1978-85), a visualisation of the complete canon that was being critically ridiculed for sets and performances that were often competitively wooden.

His interpretative skills were next excitingly transferred to opera. Three productions for English National Opera – Rigoletto (1982), The Mikado (1983), and The Barber of Seville (1987) – are still revived. The Rigoletto, moved to 1950s Mafia New York, was typical of Miller’s updating, and The Mikado, helping to save Gilbert & Sullivan from a connection with amateurism, reflected a characteristic research immersion in Japanese design and history.

Miller also had disputes with opera houses, especially those that still employed those immobile and voice-only singers who resisted the director’s desire for them to act. In professional engagements, it was sometimes a problem that he struggled to engage with the less intelligent and well-read, which was most people. Alan Bennett, a long-time friend and London neighbour, once said that he never told Miller the subject of any play he was working on because Miller would inevitably know more about the topic.

Although he had professionally abandoned comedy, it remained a key part of his personality. Asked, early on, to define his identity, he replied “Jew-ish”, a characteristic Miller joke with serious meaning that has subsequently been adopted by numerous others who, though not religiously believing or observant, found it abhorrent to deny, especially after the Holocaust, the historical, intellectual and artistic inheritance from Judaism. He was, though, an atheist and active in the Humanist movement.

Miller at Marvellous Miller, a celebration of his work for English National Opera at the London Coliseum in 2016.

Marvellous Miller, a celebration of the director’s work for English National Opera at the London Coliseum in 2016. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

A second famous Miller joke in relation to his birth faith came when, in 1978, US TV released a drama mini-series called Holocaust, charting the fate of a Jewish family in Nazi Germany. Uneasy at the subject’s populist treatment, Miller said: “I suppose there’s a certain poetic justice in us turning the Nazis into soap.”

A consistent source of anger was what he saw as the inherent anti-intellectualism of British culture. He was infuriated by a Private Eye spoof column, called Dr Jonathan, in which his photo was followed by a few hundred words of Miller, as he put it himself, “talking bollocks”, and also annoyed that the satirical TV puppet show Spitting Image caricatured him as a ludicrous pseud.

It was unfair because reading, learning and intellectual curiosity were the drivers of Miller’s life. His mother, Betty, was a novelist and biographer. And even in his frail final phase, suffering the doctor’s curse of knowing too much about what was coming for his body and mind, he was to be seen in the biggest bookshop near his London home, browsing the shelves for something new to read.

The presenter of The Body in Question remained, across the many disciplines he conquered, an extraordinarily questioning mind.

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